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17 Oct 2012

Game development blog no.2

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This is part of a series. You can read the previous entry here: Game development blog no.1

So in the true spirit of wayward development, on top of the previous four games mentioned in my last post, there's now a fifth, new game. And if that weren't enough, this new game has shot straight to the top of our priority list; it hasn't even been played yet. We did warn you this would be quite a random process.

Corruption (working title)

This latest game is about corruption, specifically corruption in Russia, but it will be built around elements that I hope will be recognisable in any corrupt regime or system.

Why Russian corruption? Aren't there countries more deserving of criticism? Yes, absolutely, but there are two main reasons why we've alighted on this subject. The first is that, quite simply, we were asked to consider it. The Russian game publishers, Igrato, are currently in the process of licencing Crunch from us (more about that soon). One day they said, "you could make a great game about Russian corruption".

We thought about it a bit and I started doing some research. I watched this great-creepy documentary about the "Nashi" (scarily reminiscent of Hitler youth), this excellent BBC series, Putin, Russia and the West, and am nearing the end of the rather dramatically titled Mafia State: How one reporter became an enemy of the brutal new Russia (which to be fair is a pretty gripping read). And of course, Putin's Russia by Anna Politkovskaya is on the list too... The more I read, the more common themes start to re-emerge - and they are incredibly juicy.

After all, corruption is a juicy subject - and that's the second reason this seemed like a good pick. Who doesn't enjoy the chance to play a corrupt, evil megalomaniac?

What I'm particularly interested in is how a mix of self-interest and fear allows corruption to take root and flourish. I'm also intrigued by how rulers like Putin and Berlusconi manage to harness such popularity through a mixture of charm, bluster and machismo and how they preside over what is really a functioning autocracy that still maintains all the signposts of a democracy. What's really fascinating is that someone like Putin has more-or-less unlimited power, but he regulates himself to ensure he never crosses a line that would break this democratic fašade.

What's really fascinating is that someone like Putin has more-or-less unlimited power, but he regulates himself to ensure he never crosses a line that would break this democratic fašade. So I've been constructing a prototype for a couple of weeks and because of time constraints, all I got round to last night was laying out the board and elements and talking everyone through the rules. As a side-note, I can recommend this as an excellent first "road test". Don't feel you need a full group to test your new idea - just getting it all out and talking through how it plays (and fielding the inevitable questions) is a really effective way of not just discovering holes in your rules but of ordering your ideas too. Something that feels self-evident to you can suddenly feel bloated and fuzzy when you try and communicate it to others.

The game so far uses a mixture of two currencies - money and influence - to help players gain control of the game. Ultimately the win is about getting the most money, but I'm already wondering whether this is too simplistic and whether there shouldn't be more recognition of how "power" is often the goal, with money being a happy result of having power. Also, I think I need to move away from Junta wherever possible.

On that note, I was aware right from the start that escaping the shadow of Junta would be a big ask when designing a game about state corruption. Money, violence, bribery, coups, power-struggles ... these subjects are all covered by Junta and retreading this ground is pretty much inevitable. We even played a (rare) seven-player game of Junta last week to refresh our minds of this hilariously chaotic game and as a genuine fan of the game I have the tough task of making sure that any similarity is "homage" and not "ripoff"!

Without a game report to write, I'll leave you with the ingredient that generated most discussion. I want the President in "Corruption" to be able to write new rules into the game. Not select from a range of new rules, but literally rewrite the rules. And I want the other players - and their ability to organise, stick their necks out and work together - to be the only check on this potentially devastating power.

Certainly if anything is asking for a game to be broken, it's allowing the players to start making up rules. But then, players do this anyway, whether we (or even they) recognise it or not. I'm just taking that idea to an extreme. And while I had in mind that this would be a side-play to the main game, it sparked such interest and thought that I'm already wondering if it should be brought more centre-stage. I guess we'll find out how successful it is as an idea first!

Posted by Andy S on 17 October 2012 - 5 comments

Comments so far:

  1. Calvinball!! That was the first thing to go through my mind when you said 'rewrite the rules'. Check out the 'Calvin and Hobbes' comic if you don't have a clue what I'm talking about; they're such a fount of creativity that checking them out is a good idea anyway. On a somewhat more serious note 'rewriting the rules must be bound by some rules that are not rewritable, or else one could just say 'new rule: I win!' (which is the equivalent of pulling a gun in the middle of a conversation) and that isn't the point, I would think. Take a look at the 'fluxx' series of games; there one adds, alters or removes rules by playing cards, so there is freedom, but restricted to what the doesn't violate the core definition of the activity engaged in (like pulling a gun in a conversation does). For the intrigue aspect of the game, you definitely should take a look at Diplomacy (specifically its 'everyones actions are revealed at the same time' mechanic) but you probably new that already. Best of wishes!David Holt from Amsterdam - 20 October 2012
  2. Hi David, I know Calvinball - but had long forgotten about it, so thanks for reminding me. I just spent some enjoyable minutes refreshing myself. I think the "no rules, within rules" mantra is a bit of a cop out. I accept it begrudgingly though - however, I really want to push this idea. My current solution is that a new rule doesn't immediately become law, that there's a "cooling off" period to allow the other players to react, but reacting itself is costly. So in this manner I want the player proposing the new rule to regulate themselves - not because they're bound by a framework of inexorable meta-rules, but because they need to tread that fine line between pushing an advantage and taking the piss!TerrorBull Games - 30 October 2012
  3. Ah, but the 'cooling off period' is itself a meta-rule. Of course reaction should cost you, but ultimately, even the ruler of Russia (or the US, or China, or whatever) cannot implement his rules unless he manages to convince, bribe or scare enough of the other 'powers that be (ptb)'. And there are always other ptb, in russia that would be the olicharchs, the church, the KGB etc. So maybe the president makes the rules (and I wouldn't rotate this role, Putin doesn't do so either even if Medvedev was figurehead for a while), but the ptb have to vote them in or out, and the president can only overrule them at a cost to his credibility; too much overruling and rebellion occurs. So you get an interaction where the president can oust any one of the ptb, but not without making the rest stronger. Then the president has to 'play all ends against the middle', while the ptb have to manipulate the president into helping their interests. Just some ideas for you. best of wishes!David Holt from Amsterdam - 1 November 2012
  4. Excellent ideas there, David - I genuinely like them all. I'm aware that the cooling-off is a meta-rule, but one that is closer to real life than some meta-rule that might state "Make up any rule, but you may never be president for longer than 4 turns". What I want is to invite extreme ideas - like president proposes "I'm going to be president for life" and allow the other players (who represent the ptb) to respond and for them to be the checks and balance that are needed to keep the game together, rather than a cold, intransigent set of rules in a booklet. But I think we're saying the same thing here more-or-less. Should the President ever rotate? Hmmm, really tough choice. The president can't be truly immutable, otherwise rebellion wouldn't work. But equally, it can't rotate too easily otherwise there's no fear of autocracy setting in. Ideally, I'd like to get a sense of endemic corruption going where following presidents continue where the previous one left off as they see the system benefits them - so even when there's a change of role, the nature of the role persists. Thanks again for your thoughts, it's awesome to get such interesting extra input on this.TerrorBull Games - 1 November 2012
  5. Just happy to help, no matter to how small a degree. I agree that the president should be able to be kicked out, either as a result of general rebellion or of having to hand out too much favours to one person (the final favour being 'OK, you will be president now and I will .. own Gazprom and a Datsja/mansion on the black sea coast' or something like that). Maybe it can even be a 'power move', as in 'Ok, now you are president, and you owe me a huge favour for it, so I manipulate you and strengthen my position vis-a-vis the other ptb (like the 'owning Gazprom' example I gave above) while being out of the limelight and so regaining credibility ... by criticizing the 'corrupt government' (no cynicism is too extreme here! :-p )!' Peace and Lolz too you!David Holt from Amsterdam - 2 November 2012

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30 Sep 2012

Game development blog no.1

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In my last post I declared a desire to document our game development process. This normally stays behind closed doors until late in the day (virtually until we're ready to release), so what you're going to see here is pretty rough round the edges. The world of prototyping is not a pretty one.

On a side note, I find that working with deliberately bare and scrappy prototypes has two key advantages:

You Started It

You Started It prototype
Those "streams" of cards are arguments going back-and-forth about who started "it".

This might be described as our fore-runner right now. It's a two-player game, which is odd because that's not something we ever set out to do. In short, both players are nation states squabbling over various historical events and establishing who started them by means of alternately broadening and narrowing the context of each event to best suit them. It's actually pretty fascinating to see the patterns that emerge in the grid of card-events and it's possible to read quite a complex narrative across them that sometimes eerily mirrors the real world. So what's wrong? Well, because it's largely card-based, there's not a tremendous amount of engagement with the game. Then, the cards are played without the player having much control over when or how they turn up, so it has a slight feeling of two-player solitaire.

Our evaluation: promising theme; needs more fun.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised prototype
These are essentially the actions available to the public players. Shoes in the game represent both selfishness and collusion with the system.

I've always wanted to design a variation of the party game Mafia that, instead of hinging on the uncertainty of a secret foe, uses a known enemy and gets its tension from the (in)ability of the "victim" group to organise and group together. Self-interest vs. group interest is what I really want to examine here and this theme keeps cropping up in a number of game prototypes and ideas. In "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised", individuals in the "victim" group make a core decision about whether to stay home and watch TV or take to the streets and start a revolution. There is of course a curfew in effect so anyone out on the streets at night is liable to be arrested by the state player(s). The couple of games we've had have been quite good fun, with promising psychological gambits taking place. However, it's very 'tippy' at the moment and needs some refinement before we test again.

Our evaluation: the combination of being difficult to test, difficult to work on and very hard to market means that the reality is this game is way down our priority list. Shame because it has the potential to be the most fun.

Spin

Starting life off as a game about Orwell's Newspeak and the "memory hole", it then mutated into a game about embedded reporters and is now about editorialising headlines. Whatever the theme (I really liked where embedded reporting was going), the game essentially derives from an idea to make a language game that showed the political power of selective word use. It's quite an advanced game that gives players a starting headline and then asks them to fold in one or more key words, while at the same time making the headline hit a prescribed emotional goal (eg. "More morally righteous", "More dismissive" etc.). It's only had one outing and that game was amazingly successful, going down well with the mixed group we had.

Our evaluation: pretty broken and very open to being 'gamed' so not for everyone. Also quite a demanding game in terms of creativity and even vocabulary so ... who knows. Maybe a "mini release" is on the cards if we can polish it up some more.

Strawman

Strawman prototype
Inset you see Brett of 55 Cards literally struck dumb with effort.

Another language/party game! I don't know what's got into us ... Well the reason for this was a misheard phrase that lead to this game going from idea to prototype in a record 2 hours. The idea is very basic - you have to argue with an opponent, deliberately employing a rhetorical fallacy as the basis for your point. As you progress in the game, you have to work in stupid movements and sounds into your argument-making so that by the end of it you look and sound like an idiot. The hope is that by forcing people to argue badly, we'll teach them how to argue better. (Credit is due to this beautifully presented collection of logical fallacies whose icons I hastily nabbed for our prototype).

Our evaluation: It's really difficult! It takes some serious language (and rhetorical) skills to deliberately construct a fallacious argument to order. However, there was a lot of silliness and laughter in the one playtest we've had so far. Again, maybe a light-hearted mini-release at some point?

Top Secret App!

Top Secret App screenshots
Two partial screenshots. Yes, that is Donald Rumsfeld on the right. Don't pretend you didn't know.

So immediately going against our new-found spirit of openness and collaboration, I have to insist this one stays a bit of a surprise. The reason is that this app is (I don't mind admitting) basically just one joke - taken to a rather dark extreme in an attempt to make the theme really hit home. If we tell you too much now - even the title - it'll basically spoil the joke later on. So here are a couple of screenshots ... a world exclusive!

Our evaluation: This one's definitely happening, but since I'm teaching myself how to code as I go along, progress is slow. I'm hoping to finish it before the year's up.

Posted by Andy S on 30 September 2012 - 6 comments

Comments so far:

  1. That is totally W G Grace next to Donald Rumsfeld!Jake from The Internet - 1 October 2012
  2. Your openness is greatly appreciated! The first two proto-games in particular look interesting. Have you considered starting from a classic sociological/psychological situation, like the prisoners dillemma or the Milgram experiment, and building a game around it? I also like the idea of 'spin', but think about putting it in a format that puts politicians/spindoctors against journalists, hiding the facts v.s. uncovering them. Like 'clue', but if the spinners meet certain criteria they can change the 'truth'. Or something like that. ;-) Anyway, more power (and EVIL, can't have power without EVIL, right) to you!David Holt from Amsterdam - 3 October 2012
  3. David, thanks for your comments. I'm quite heavily influenced by those infamous psychological experiments; I see them as games in their own right. And I really like your suggestions for 'Spin' - I'll definitely explore that avenue of pitting two sides against each other. And I love the idea of a Clue-type "unknown" in a game about truth and message. Very apt. Hmmm... lots to muse on.TerrorBull Games - 7 October 2012
  4. Great Stuff! Try and get a release for all of them, if possible, as they all sound worthy of being created and played. Personally, I particularly like the 'you started it' idea. But as The Beatles B-sides still have validity so would the release of the games that are not currently front-runners. (I can see that 'The revolution will not be televised' is certainly based on the 'volunteer's dilemma').BEN from SWANSEA - 9 October 2012
  5. Thanks for replying! Happy to know my ideas are of some use! Now, to take over the world, for Justice! And Ice Cream. ;-)David Holt from Amsterdam - 10 October 2012
  6. Hey Ben, really appreciate your vote of confidence! Wouldn't it be nice to have a B-side parallel in the games world? The revolution game - and maybe even both the language games - could potentially all be released as print-your-own freebies at some point, depending on their various trajectories. There's something about a party/group game in particular that feels wrong to constrain it with rules and pieces and dice etc. If I can, I want to move away from that and keep it more "pure". TerrorBull Games - 17 October 2012

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24 Sep 2012

The embarrassing side of game design

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I'm really bad at sharing the creative process that goes into designing and making games. It's something that I've often wished I could change, not least because I think it could be a really interesting record and resource for others if I actually talked candidly about work-in-progress.

When I try and analyse the reasons for my reluctance to publicly share what we're working on, I can identify a mixture of natural guardedness, protectionism and worry that too much talk will corrupt the (mostly) spontaneous act of creation. However, more than all those things (after all, who is really going to steal one of our ideas and produce it themselves? - good luck to that person!) is the embarrassment of showing the reality of how wayward the game development path is. I feel a twinge of guilt when I look at our small mountain of unfinished games-in-progress and I feel utterly amateurish when I recall how many times I've declared to myself, "This is going to be our next game!".

I know that recording my thoughts as I go along will inevitably make these failed attempts and blind alleys public (along with my erroneous and changeable opinions). But it's precisely because of the embarrassment factor that I hope this post alone will provide some comfort and resonance to other game designers. Ultimately, it's OK to be wrong. Game design is also rarely a logical, iterative process of refinement. It's frequently messy and unpredictable but in all the cast-aside ideas, patterns and themes reoccur and eventually a cohesive idea grows from them.

Of all the creative pursuits I've tried, I have to say game design is the most challenging. So many aspects have to be right to make a good game that it is often hard to tell you even have a good game until it's nearly complete. And the energy you need to carry you through the process of prototyping-and-testing means that you necessarily have to turn a blind eye to early "warning signs" and plough on regardless. We almost chucked in the towel with War on Terror, for example, at least twice.

So I'm going to try and turn over a new leaf. The next blog post will be my attempt at writing a development update on several games that we're working on simultaneously. I can't promise that it'll last, but my intention is to document the process of producing our next game a lot more openly.

Posted by Andy S on 24 September 2012 - 4 comments

Comments so far:

  1. Just had to test this comment form. It's amazingly new to me.Rue from Olongapo,Philippines - 26 September 2012
  2. War Criminal Captcha - brilliant!James from London, uk - 26 September 2012
  3. Just wanted to test this. Love it.John Travolta from Under your bed - 27 September 2012
  4. Good luck; really look forward to reading itBobo the clown - 19 August 2014

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10 Jun 2012

TerrorBull team up with Acabo to bring their educational games to the UK

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Back in December last year at the Mill Rd Winter Fair, we were happy to see some fellow board game publishers holding a stall near ours. Not only that, but they were selling educational games. What are the odds? It was almost as if the Fates of Boardgame Publishing (they exist, check your mythology textbook) had thrown us together.

Acabo Games (for it was they) were selling the freshly printed English version of their science trivia game, The Art of Science. We thought it was all very good, but didn't think much more of it until we met down the pub later that evening and we got to actually play the game. (You see, the pub is the common element in all significant events). Well it frazzled our right-hemisphere-dominated brains, we can tell you that.

Expecting a rather feel-good, family Trivial Pursuits style game, we got instead a hardcore science grillingExpecting a rather feel-good, family Trivial Pursuits style game, we got instead a hardcore science grilling. We then learnt that the 2,000 questions were the work of an industrious team of Swedish Phd scientists and that our puny humanities degrees really didn't stand a chance.

But the most impressive thing was that we still had a great game. There are a couple of lovely, original twists on the trivia genre that make it engaging even if you're, well, scientifically challenged. For a start, the scoring system is such that you can weight your best subjects at the top, which means you'll be answering more questions in that subject. So by placing "misc" and "tech" right at the top of our score card, we had a fighting chance to compete against chemistry majors. The other interesting touch was the introduction of some "screw you" mechanics (always a favourite component here at TBG). So for example, if you land on another player's square, you can move them to a new square and thus force them to answer their least favourite category next turn.

TerrorBull Games take on The Art of Science

When Acabo said they were struggling to get the game into the UK market, the next step seemed obvious. While we admittedly don't know much about trivia games, we do recognise a quality game when we see it - and not just that, but a game with genuine educational intent, born out of love of sharing knowledge, rather than commercial greed. So TerrorBull Games are now the official suppliers of The Art of Science here in the UK. Check out the dedicated games page for more information. It's been getting some corking reviews and reception already. Perfect for your inner geek - or any scientist in your life.

Also, check out Acabo Games themselves. They have a great ethos and we've also had the pleasure of playing some of their other games, including a beautifully designed estimating/statistics game, which is several thousand times more fun than my description of it right there. We hope to be able to also bring you this game very soon.

Buy The Art of Science from the TerrorBull Shop now.

Posted by TerrorBull Games on 10 June 2012 - 0 comments

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07 Jun 2012

Playing catch-up

It's been a while, hasn't it? Our silences are usually a good thing as it tends to mean we're hard at work on something exciting. That's mostly true in this case and we have some exciting news to share. However, we've also just been rubbish, sorry about that. So what's been happening at The Bunker? Well mostly out of The Bunker ...

Play Modena, Italy

Back in March, we were invited to attend Play Modena as a speaker on a couple of panels. The first session was a fairly open affair called "Games with the Designers", focusing on the practical issues facing independent designers, both large and small. The second was a Q&A with a workshop component on how to communicate through games. It was an honour to be on a panel with the illustrious Martin Wallace and Mac Gerdts. Their combined experience gave rise to some great insights and I think everyone at the workshop came away a bit wiser. The workshop session comprised each of us setting a theme and then the participants working these themes up in groups and then pitching them back to us. I'm proud to say that my "99%" theme produced some really lovely ideas, including an excellent idea that built upon the old game, Kingmaker. I might just have to steal that one ...

In terms of pure focus on play, Modena beats Essen hands-down for me (check out the photos for an idea of the scale of the event and size of the play area). It was a great show with a great atmosphere. The only thing I'd like to see is some of the (excellent) sessions taken out of the main hall. Way too noisy for productive or serious conversation.

Gamecamp, London

running round a classroom, screaming and pushing each other Gamecamp is a wonderful unconference run by James Wallace & co. It sees a few hundred (?) participants from a whole range of disciplines come together for spontaneous discussion and dialogue. Fundamentally, if you have something you want to talk about, you stick it on the board and book a room. Each session is just 30 minutes long and then a gong rings and you head off to the next room. It's not perfect - getting any meaningful discussion going in that space of time with a group of strangers is really difficult - but it does allow for a very broad experience. For example, the best session of the day was undoubtedly "Playground Games". Not an earnest dissection of how children adopt and spread games (which is what I'd imagined) but literally running round a classroom, screaming and pushing each other. This year's Gamecamp solidified it as an annual "must attend" for me.

As always, the best ideas happen down the pub and after the conference finished, I met up with four like-minded but diverse individuals and we started brainstorming a game for the Occupy movement (you'll notice a thread of obsession here, continuing on from my theme at the Modena Workshop). Tonnes of good ideas were had and that conversation is still going on. I'd love to produce a genuinely collaborative game that invoked spontaneous collaboration in the face of monopoly. Let's see what happens ...

Play @Digital Shoreditch

Finally, Play Day, part of the Digital Shoreditch festival was a most engaging affair. The usual industry analysis was peppered with really fun "tabletop" discussions (in the spirit of, but not quite the model of, an unconference) about anything from "the moral gamer" to "increasing player engagement". "Transmedia" was the word of the day, with a surprising number of discussions involving talk of televisions. The day was then rounded off with a kick-ass party in a big top tent, with physical games such as J.S. Joust and the 100 player co-operative shoot-em-up, Renga.

Other Stuff

We've been meeting almost-weekly with a couple of Cambridge-based board game designers - namely Brett Gilbert of 55 Cards and Matt Dunstan - for regular play-testing sessions. It's been hugely useful and inspiring (and slightly depressing since both Matt and Brett are prolific in their idea-generation). With their help, we've been working on a new board game about petty nation state squabbles, provisionally called "You Started It". It's still very early days, but it feels really good - the mix of theme, mechanics and the play that emerges from it are all tightly interwoven and feel really meaningful. Only problem? It's just not that fun to play! But it does feel like a game that's worth perservering with.

I've also been teaching myself some programming with the help of Coronoa SDK and have been thoroughtly enjoying it. Corona makes it pretty easy to make quick progress, even for a beginner like myself. While I'm still just messing around, I have managed to get a proof of concept going for an "anti-Tamagotchi" app. That's all I can divulge right now. More details and screenshots will follow shortly.

Finally, finally we have a very new and exciting development to announce, but that's best saved for it's own blog post ...

Posted by Andy S on 7 June 2012 - 0 comments

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